About Susan

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Muscles! Princess! Muscles! Princess!

Trying my darndest to be graceful!

The integration of these diametrically opposed concepts is what a ballet dancer grapples with from day 1 as a student throughout the entirety of her career.  (Notice I didn't state "female ballet dancer" since the all-too-beautiful divas of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and Les Ballets Grandiva are wonderful examples of this dichotomy.  I love how each ballerina is referred to in the feminine.  Oh, to be Svetlana Lofatkina!)

A ballerina must be as strong as steel to perform technical feats that are - let's face it - largely unnatural to the human body.  But the audience must only see the luminous radiance of a beautiful woman: regal, poised, yet delicate and pliant.

So we work hard on building strength and length, meticulously and carefully.  We must be strong, but we must not bulk up in the wrong places.  "Lengthen, don't grip!  Do you want thunder thighs?"  If I had a penny for every time I've been told that ...

And when we're strong enough, our appearance and movement must not be the embodiment of that strength.  We must be strength sublimated into grace.  We must be strength in agility, fortresses of ethereal beauty.   

It's not easy for me.  I'm naturally a tomboy and love "strong" roles.  It's at once a great challenge and completely frustrating to work on "girly" roles.  I'm often told that I look too hefty in my upper body, that I need to soften.  I soften, and then I'm told I'm not regal enough.  I straighten my back, my elbows all the way to the tips of my fingers, and lift my chin a little.  No, no, no, too stiff!  And so it goes.

I owe the title of this post to one of my favorite teachers, Ramon from Ballet San Jose.  "You must feel like you're the most important person in the world," he smiled, encouraging me to show the carriage befitting a ballet dancer during center adagio.  "You are a princess!"

In nearly the same breath he gave another correction as I executed a développé écarté (slow extension of the leg to the side) - "Muscles!" to let me know I needed to tighten even more to smooth the movement into a beautiful unfurling of leg.  I repeated the movement.  "Princess!" he exclaimed, lengthening his back and chest to indicate the lifted, proud yet relaxed look I should be projecting.  "Muscles!  Princess!" he repeated as I tried again.

Finally I did it to his satisfaction, and only after I closed into fifth position carefully did I burst into laughter; I couldn't help myself.  At Ramon's quizzical look, I gestured to my lower body, "Muscles!" and then my upper body, "Princess!" and after a beat repeated in quick succession,  "Muscles!  Princess!"

Ramon smiled and said in the indulgent manner only he can pull off, "Yes, that's right."  (I really appreciate Ramon's patience and sense of humor ... if it had been another teacher I probably wouldn't have allowed myself to laugh!)

Even as I struggle with projecting strength and delicacy as a seamless whole, I'm gratified to know that at least I'm improving.  I admit I can see the difference in more recent performances, as well as when my Chinese dance coach gives me a rare and unexpected compliment: "It's a little more natural, now," she told me not long ago, and then gave me more corrections on how to improve.  When Chinese dance gets girly, it's really girly.

I'm ready to keep learning, to keep trying to become more graceful.

So, bring it on!!  Er, I mean, yes, please!  ;-)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fitness Challenge On!

Feels so great to stretch at the studio after all that gym work!

I'd meant to update sooner, but life has this amazing way of filling my days with so much that I'm only getting to it now!  Happily, a good deal of that activity has been physical.  I completed the 2 Week Challenge!  (Read about how it all started.)  It wasn't easy ... After facing kettlebells, trainer Nic introduced me to other new (and seemingly cruel) ways to build strength and endurance.

The Squat Rack
I laughed at the name until I realized what I was supposed to do.  The great thing about the squat rack is you can use it in different ways. First I was directed to use it as modified pull-up tool, with my body held straight with core engaged right beneath the bar. It's like this: Put both hands on the bar (set low) and pull yourself up, keeping your body perfectly straight. Nic wanted me to sweat and groan, so he had me put my legs way out beyond the rack - less leverage means more work!

That was fun, but then I got the real deal. The bar was adjusted to my standing height so I could lift the bar off the rack and place it on my shoulders. All I was missing were buckets on either end, filled with water or noodles or whatever!

First I did squats, then single leg lunges, then again - then Nic began adding weights on the end (be careful what you wish for!). By then I was starting to fatigue with the repeated reps, so after I finished each set, I watched in trepidation as Nic calmly picked up progressively bigger black weights. In the end, after nearly dying, he informed me that I'd been lifting 60 pounds at the end. Whoa! I was proud of myself!

Wobbly Walking Push-Ups
I have no idea what this exercise is called, but picture having your hands and feet in low-rider rollerskates that have gone wonky like bad shopping or airplane carts (you know, where the wheels will *not* go straight) and walking with your arms L-R, pushup, R-L, pushup, repeating, for 200 yards.  And then back again.  Body straight, with only the arms doing the walking.

Cruel and unusual punishment, I say!  I thought my upper arms were going to fall off - I could hardly do another pushup towards middle of the second set (yes, second set up and down, another 400 yards) even if I could manage to walk forward, arms shaking.

The funny part was that just about everyone on the gym floor stopped to watch and gave me helpful encouragement.  "You kicked butt," Nic told me after I picked my sweaty self off the floor, "Most guys can't even make it down one way the first time - I couldn't."  I totally didn't believe that he couldn't the first time, but then again, dance has given me a stronger than average core, which has helped me immeasurably throughout my fitness challenge.

Shock Your Body!
I did many other kinds of exercises in between, but the above two really made a deep impression on me.  They were super hard and very rewarding.  "C'mon, strong!  Mighty Mouse!" Nic would say whenever I started to flag.  (I sometimes wear a yellow t-shirt depicting Mighty Mouse in flight, over my leotard and shorts.)

In the weeks since, I've incorporated many new and interesting exercises and techniques into my warm-ups and workouts.  I like to "shock" my body by mixing it up each day so it doesn't get too accustomed to using only one set of muscles.  It's more interesting, and it also has me cross-training for the first time in my life!

I've found that I really enjoy working my body in different ways.  It informs my dancing and hasn't bulked me up like my Chinese dance teacher cautions me not to do (I'd never tell her I am going to the gym!).  I feel stronger in my core, too, and my endurance has improved.

The best part is, working out makes me love dancing even more.  I feel gratified when I lengthen my muscles and point my feet, shod in slippers and not trainers.

Most of all, I feel like I have more ways to challenge myself and to take care of my body.  I want to be like Skip, the 60 year old who congratulated me on my pushup walks - he was incredibly fit and proceeded to do the same exercise, but with a unicycle for his feet.  Hard core!